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Monday, 3 February 2014

The Birthday Buyer - Adolfo Garcia Ortega (Translated by Peter Bush)

In 1963 Primo Levi’s “La Tregua” (The Truce) was released, a follow up memoir to his “Se questo e un uomo” (If this Is Man), tales of his survival in Auschwitz. In “The Truce” two pages are dedicated to a 3 year old boy, Hurbinek, who died in Auschwitz in the room holding Levi, after the concentration camp was “liberated”.

50 years later (for the English translation) we have Adolfo Garcia Ortega, obsessed by that three year old boy. To such an extent that he decides to rescue his story from oblivion, as there are so many stories of oblivion from the holocaust, and imagine his tale.

Last year I reviewed Laurent Binet’s “HHhH” a WW2 story also, one that covers the assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich, but this novel was also Binet’s story, his struggle of writing true “historical fiction”. “The Birthday Buyer” is also our novelist’s story but here we don’t have the struggle with “inventing” historical fiction, we actually have an unashamed invention, a fantasy of Hurbinek, a homage to a life not lived.

Children, especially if they are very young, leave barely a trace. They don’t write letters, leave written or oral accounts in their wake, don’t draw up documents, contracts, receipts, don’t own valuable objects, aren’t remembered by their community because of any common gesture or action, have few friends, and the ones they do have are other children. They live cheek-by-jowel with their families, their parents, the brothers and sisters, the photos in which they appear are family photos, where it is almost impossible to identify even the adults. And if the adults disappear with them, no one, ever, will call them to mind in even the most fleeting of reflections.

This is a gruesome book, one where our writer researches the horrors of the holocaust and details time after time the brutal treatment of the Jews, primarily the children. He owes this research to Hurbinek, he needs to clean away the sins of the past. To fulfil this wish, this dedication, he decides to travel to Auschwitz to see the resting place of this child, the place detailed by Levi. But on the way he is involved in a car accident and is holed up in a German hospital, where the experiments on him become hallucinations and recriminations of what happened in the concentration camps.

And I have just woken up from a similar dream in the hospital in Frankfurt:  in my dream I was on top of a mountain of rubbish and filth. I couldn’t identify the kind of rubbish, but I knew, as a matter of course, that it was foul-smelling; there were old clothes, scrap metal and even human remains that I accepted, as a matter of course. Next to me, at the top of the mountain, someone had nailed up a sign: FRANKFURT. From where I stood, I could see two other mountains, also containing all manner of filth and rubbish. The sign on one said AUSCHWITZ and on the other WARSAW.

This is a very very difficult novel to read, the ongoing descriptions of atrocities; the linking of Hurbinek’s imagined life to the lives of successful people in the arts, labourers or simple family men. The life not lived. But it doesn’t end there, Levi in “The Truce” knew nothing of Hurbinek’s past, was he born in Auschwitz, was he a victim of Mengele’s experiments, was he born deformed and brought here but somehow escaped the gas chambers? All these questions about a deformed child who could not speak are imagined by Adolfo Garcia Ortega. So we have an imagined past.

Although the novel contains quite a lot of repetitive material, for example "I learned...., I learned...." the listing of the atrocities is so moving and relevant to the recovery of history that it doesn't become distracting. We even have sections that simply lists words to describe the horrors, but all within context, how do you come up with a "word" to describe what occurred.

Every so often you come across a novel which stuns you, one that makes you stand up and celebrate literature, one that you want to tell everybody they should read. This is one of those books, a novel that has haunted me since its completion and one that will haunt me for a while to come (I’m sure). As a newbie to the world of “translated fiction” (I’ve only read the shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for the last two years), I may be out of my depth in calling for this to be a certainty for the 2014 shortlist, but in the translated novels I’ve read in the last year, this one is a standout. May more people come across its riches now that it is available in English.

Thanks to Hispabooks for yet another independent publisher who focuses on translated works, this time from the Spanish. For more details of their offerings go to

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